Overview and Facts
While many laypeople use the terms HIV and AIDS interchangeably, they are not in fact the same. AIDS – acquired immunodeficiency syndrome – is a debilitating medical condition caused by HIV – the human immunodeficiency virus – which targets and weakens the immune system. Once introduced to the body, HIV obstructs the body’s ability to guard itself against disease and illness. In particular, HIV destroys the body’s CD4+ T cells, which are crucial white blood cells that help to stave off infection.
A person can be HIV-positive and not have AIDS. In its early stages, HIV infliction can cause acute HIV infection, an early phase of the disease. Only HIV infection at its most advanced level is considered AIDS.
HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, is transmitted sexually. More than 30 million people around the globe are afflicted with HIV AIDS. There is currently no HIV vaccine or cure but there are drugs that slow the advancement of the disease.
Signs and Symptoms
The symptoms for people afflicted with HIV will differ depending on the many stages of the infection.
Upon initial HIV infection, there may be few or no symptoms at all. However, as HIV spreads throughout one’s body, people with HIV may start to feel certain symptoms such as:
- other flu-like symptoms
As the illness progresses, the patient will enter into a weeks-long phase called acute HIV infection and will start to exhibit more serious flu-like symptoms after a month or two of infection, including:
- swollen lymph glands
- muscle soreness
- sore throat
- joint pain
- ulcers on the mouth or genitals
- night sweats
- short-term memory loss
This phase is when HIV spreads most quickly and efficiently throughout the body, infecting and destroying immune system cells.If HIV infection reaches its most advanced stage in a patient, that person is considered to have AIDS. The symptoms for AIDS are most serious and involve nearly every organ system in the body, including these signs:
- vision loss
- mental confusion and memory loss
- extreme fatigue and weight loss
- severe headaches
- chronic diarrhea
HIV symptoms in men are very similar to HIV symptoms in women. Additional HIV symptoms in women that are not found in men include vaginal yeast infections and pelvic inflammatory disease.
Causes and Diagnosis
Transmission of HIV
HIV AIDS is primarily a sexually transmitted disease. There are four main ways that HIV is passed from person to person:
- Sexual activity. A person may be infected with HIV if he or she has sex with partner who is HIV-positive. Infection can occur when vaginal, seminal, or blood secretions of the infected partner enter the body of another person.
- Sharing needles. The transfer of infected blood from one person to another through sharing needles can cause the transmission of HIV. Sharing needles for drug use puts users at a high risk of HIV and other diseases like hepatitis.
- Mother to child. An HIV-positive mother can pass on the virus and the infection to a newborn baby either through delivery or through breast-feeding. However, modern drugs that help to treat HIV can reduce the risk of this type of transmission happening.
- Blood transfusions. In less developed countries, blood transfusions can introduce HIV into the bodies of recipient patients. In the United States, screening for HIV ensures that the risk to transmission of HIV through transfusions is very small.
HIV diagnosis involves being tested for antibodies in the blood that are specific to HIV. For more information, see “Tests and Treatment Options.”
Tests and Treatment Options
Nearly 1 in 5 Americans who is HIV-positive does not know it. Those recently infected can have few to no symptoms and HIV cells can remain low-key for weeks on end.
Testing centers usually provide two main types of tests to determine if someone is inflicted with HIV. The ELISA (enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay) test and the Western blot test both analyze blood samples for strands of proteins called antibodies that are linked to HIV. A person may also receive an HIV genetic material test if he or she is at high risk of being infected recently in the past 3 months.
There are more than 30 medications approved by the U.S. Food and drug Administration (FDA) to help counteract HIV. There is no cure and no vaccine for HIV AIDS, but these drugs can help to slow the progress of HIV through the body and limit the severity of symptoms. There are several different types of drugs that may work differently for all kinds of HIV patients. These include nucleoside and non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs and NNRTIs), integrase inhibitors, protease inhibitors, and fusion inhibitors.
Usually, treatment for HIV will involve taking pills many times a day. Side effects can be severe and can include nausea, shortness of breath, rashes, bone death, vomiting, and diarrhea.
Patients who are HIV-positive or have AIDS should consult with their doctor over what types of treatment are best for them.